The Navy’s top admiral, Mike Gilday, will soon decide the fate of Navy Captain Brett Crozier, the former commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Then-acting Navy Secretary, Thomas Modly, fired Crozier on April 2 after Crozier emailed more than 20 people outside his chain of command explaining the dire situation regarding his coronavirus-infected crew.
The email pleaded for commanders to take quick action and provide resources to help stem the outbreak. This move wasn’t just out of line—it might also have broken military law because the email, sent to “a broad audience of people,” contained sensitive information that could compromise America’s national security interests. The email has since been leaked to the media—specifically the San Francisco Chronicle—though it is unclear who sent the email to this news outlet.
As of April 24, 840 out of 5,000 sailors aboard the Roosevelt have tested positive for COVID-19, including Crozier himself. One sailor has died, four remain hospitalized, 88 have recovered, and more than 4,000 have been moved into housing on Naval Base Guam and in hotels on the island, where the ship has been docked since March 27 for quarantine purposes.
Modly has resigned since firing Crozier due to the fallout from his speech to the Roosevelt crew and is now quarantined following his trip to the carrier. Modly was within his authority to relieve Crozier of command. However, the move still sends an unsettling message to other Navy officers “that there be no further complaints from commanders in regard to the handling of COVID-19,” said Gary Solis, a law professor and former Marine judge advocate.
Rachel VanLandingham, also a law professor and former Air Force judge advocate, adds that it was inappropriate for Modly to tell Crozier’s crew that their captain may have broken military law. “He didn’t explain it at all,” she said. “What are the effects of that going forward?”
Crozier’s fate is yet to be decided. William Fallon, former commander of US Pacific Command and a retired four-star admiral, points out the importance of Adm. Gilday’s recommendation. “He’s making an administrative decision back here, but it has profound operational implications,” Fallon said.
Gilday, known for being an honest, forthright person, is expected to make his decision based on facts and what he deems is best for the aircraft carrier’s crew and the Navy as a whole. Here are the possible recommendations Gilday may settle on once he finishes reviewing the investigation:
In an extremely rare move, it’s possible Crozier may be reinstated as captain of the Roosevelt. This could happen if Gilday decides Crozier acted in the best interests of his crew and was unfairly removed.
Reinstatement could garner ample support. Crozier’s crew did applaud and chant his name as he disembarked after being fired. However, putting Crozier back on the ship with Rear Adm. Stuart Baker could exacerbate the ship’s toxic command climate. After all, the poor relationship between these two officers is one reason Crozier skirted his chain of command and sent the email in the first place.
Rather than restore Crozier as captain of the Roosevelt, Gilday could simply absolve him of wrongdoing, allow him to retain his rank and standing, and let him seek a position elsewhere, perhaps as the captain of another ship. This would avoid putting him back into a toxic setting, but it wouldn’t provide the emotional lift to the crew of seeing their beloved captain return to the ship with honor.
Charges under the UCMJ
Modly’s assertion that Crozier broke military law was based on the suggestion that Crozier intentionally leaked his email to the media. That would indeed be a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
However, if Crozier didn’t do this, then there are likely no grounds for charges against him. There could be efforts to depict his actions as hazarding a vessel, dereliction of duty, or conduct unbecoming an officer, but according to Corey Bean, a 10-year member of the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, attempting to draw these charges is like to “trying to cram a square peg in a round hole.”
Solis, VanLandingham, and Bean all agree—it’s unlikely the Navy will bring any charges against Crozier. “He was just trying to do his duty,” VanLandingham said.
Remain Relieved of Duty
Gilday could decide that firing Crozier was the appropriate action. Unless overturned in an appeal, that would end Crozier’s Navy career. Gilday could take this one step further and recommend that Baker be reprimanded or even relieved of duty for failing to heed Crozier’s concerns. Other leaders who took too long to recognize and respond to the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the Roosevelt, which led to Crozier’s pleading email, could also receive criticism from Gilday.
Once Gilday makes his recommendation, he will relay it to the acting Navy Secretary James McPherson, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, members of Congress, and the White House.